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The Perfect Firestorm

Climate, ecology, and stupid urbanization have conspired to create the ingredients for one of the most devastating wildfires in California history.
 
 
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Sunday morning in San Diego. The sun is an eerie orange orb. The fire on the flank of Otay Mountain, which straddles the Mexican border, generates a huge whitish-grey mushroom plume. Meanwhile the black sky rains ash from incinerated national forests and dream homes.

It may be the fire of the century in Southern California. By brunch on Sunday eight separate fires were raging out of control, and the two largest had merged into a single 40-mile-long red wall. The megalopolis's emergency resources have been stretched to the breaking point and California's National Guard reinforcements are 10,000 miles away in Iraq. Panic is creeping into the on-the-spot television reports from scores of chaotic fire scenes.

Fourteen deaths have already been reported in San Bernardino and San Diego counties, and nearly 1000 homes have been destroyed. More than 100,000 suburbanites have been evacuated, triple as many as during the great Arizona fire of 2002 or the Canberra (Australia) fire last January. Tens of thousands of others have their cars packed with family pets and mementos. We're all waiting to flee. There is no containment yet.

It is, of course, the right time of the year for the end of the world.

Just before Halloween, the pressure differential between the Colorado Plateau and Southern California begins to generate the infamous Santa Ana winds. A spark in their path becomes a blowtorch.

Exactly a decade ago, between Oct. 26 and Nov. 7, firestorms fanned by Santa Anas destroyed more than a 1000 homes in Pasadena, Malibu, and Laguna Beach. In the last century, nearly half the great Southern California fires have occurred in October.

This time climate, ecology, and stupid urbanization have conspired to create the ingredients for one of the most perfect firestorms in California history. Experts have seen it coming for months.

First of all, there is an extraordinary supply of perfectly cured, tinder-dry fuel. The weather year, 2001-02, was the driest in the history of Southern California. Here in San Diego we had only three inches of rain. (The average is about 11 inches). Then last winter it rained just hard enough to sprout dense thickets of new underbrush (a.k.a. fire starter), all of which have now been desiccated for months.

Meanwhile in the local mountains, an epic drought, which may be an expression of global warming, opened the way to a bark beetle infestation which has already killed or is killing 90 percent of Southern California's pine forests. Last month, scientists grimly told members of Congress at a special hearing at Lake Arrowhead that "it is too late to save the San Bernardino National Forest." Arrowhead and other famous mountain resorts, they predicted, would soon "look like any treeless suburb of Los Angeles."

These dead forests represent an almost apocalyptic hazard to more than 100,000 mountain and foothill residents, many of whom depend on a single, narrow road for their fire escape. Earlier this year, San Bernardino county officials, despairing of the ability to evacuate all their mountain hamlets by highway, proposed a bizarre last-ditch plan to huddle residents on boats in the middle of Arrowhead and Big Bear lakes.

Now the San Bernardinos are an inferno, along with tens of thousand acres of chaparral-covered hillsides in neighboring counties. As always during Halloween fire seasons, there is anxiety about arson. Invisible hands may have purposely ignited several of the current firestorms. Indeed, in Santa Ana weather like this, one maniac on a motorcycle with a cigarette lighter can burn down half the world.

This is a specter against which grand inquisitors and wars against terrorism are powerless to protect us. Moreover, many fire scientists dismiss "ignition" -- whether natural, accidental, or deliberate -- as a relatively trivial factor in their equations. They study wildfire as an inevitable result of the accumulation of fuel mass. Given fuel, "fire happens."

The best preventive measure, of course, is to return to the native-Californian practice of regular, small-scale burning of old brush and chaparral. This is now textbook policy, but the suburbanization of the fire terrain makes it almost impossible to implement it on any adequate scale. Homeowners despise the temporary pollution of "controlled burns" and local officials fear the legal consequences of escaped fires.

As a result, huge plantations of old, highly flammable brush accumulate along the peripheries and in the interstices of new, sprawled-out suburbs. Since the devastating 1993 fires, tens of thousands of new homes have pushed their way into the furthest recesses of Southern California's coastal and inland fire-belts. Each new homeowner, moreover, expects heroic levels of protection from underfunded county and state fire agencies.

Fire, as a result, is politically ironic. Right now, as I watch San Diego's wealthiest new suburb, Scripps Ranch, in flames, I recall the Schwarzenegger fund-raising parties hosted there a few weeks ago. This was an epicenter of the recent recall and gilded voices roared to the skies against the oppression of an out-of-control public sector. Now Arnold's wealthy supporters are screaming for fire engines, and "big government" is the only thing standing between their $3 million homes and the ash pile.

Halloween fires, of course, burn shacks as well as mansions, but Republicans tend to disproportionately concentrate themselves in the wrong altitudes and ecologies. Indeed it is striking to what extent the current fire map (Rancho Cucamonga, north Fontana, La Verne, Simi Valley, Vista, Ramona, Eucalyptus Hills, Scripps Ranch, and so on) recapitulates geographic patterns of heaviest voter support for the recall.

The fires also cruelly illuminate the new governor's essential dilemma: how to service simultaneous middle-class demands for reduced spending and more public services. The white-flight gated suburbs insist on impossible standards of fire protection, but refuse to pay either higher insurance premiums (fire insurance in California is "cross-subsidized" by all homeowners) or higher property taxes. Even a Hollywood superhero will have difficulty squaring that circle.

Mike Davis is the author of 'City of Quartz,' 'Ecology of Fear,' and most recently, 'Dead Cities: and Other Tales.'